Cooking up a tone of voice (and a side of tips)

Here’s how a recipe for ‘My Epic BBQ Sauce’ starts:

I really love this barbecue sauce. There are loads of layers of flavours that make it truly insane.’

Who wrote it?

Here are a couple more tasters, this time from the chef’s restaurant menus:

Our tasty Cornish field mushrooms and our whopping great beef tomatoes.’
Baker Tom’s bread baked daily and the best Puglian green olives.’
Crispy fried fish using the fish we should be eating.’

It’s Jamie Oliver. Easypeasy? Probably. You might have got some clues from Cornwall or Puglia. But spotting Jamie is nearly all down to his tone. They’re not just ‘beef tomatoes’, they’re ‘whopping great ones’. It’s not ‘sustainable fish’, it’s ‘the fish we should be eating’.

And this tone is pretty much consistent in everything he puts his name to. His restaurants, magazine, blog, iPhone app, pots, pans or books.

It’s one thing to capture a person’s voice in writing – but can you do that for a brand (with lots of writers)? We think so. Jamie’s writing works so well because it sounds like someone speaking, not writing. Most brands would do well to just learn that.

But Jamie’s a busy man. And like any big chef nowadays worth his branded Flavour Shaker, he doesn’t have time to manage everything. That’s why he’s got a team to help write his words. Yet everything sounds like it comes from him. And he’s hugely popular. So if Jamie’s team can have lots of writers, but one distinctive voice – your brand can too.

Come to think of it, all companies – but especially food and drink brands – can learn a lot from food writers. It worked for Waitrose’s Cooks’ Ingredients: ‘A dash of light soya sauce…A sprinkle of vanilla sugar…Go gently with the chopped garlic.’

We’ve just been working on the tone of voice for a whisky brand. We used some of Nigel Slater’s words to show how food and drink writing sounds more appetising with simpler words and fewer adjectives. Try reading this without licking your lips:

If there is anything better to eat than a plate of hot, salty chips with a bottle of ice-cold beer, I have never found it.” Nigel Slater, Real Food.

Pass the salt.


1. Think homemade and real, not anonymous (you want to eat that bread because Baker Tom made it, and those olives because they’re the best ones from Puglia).

2. Spoon in generous voice (it’s better to sound like a person than a faceless company).

3. Think about how to add a splash of colour to your words like Jamie’s epic barbeque sauce.

4. But don’t ladle too many adjectives on top. Nigel Slater’s, ‘a crab sandwich by the sea on a June afternoon’ says a lot, really simply.

5. Add a pinch of passion (but don’t just say ‘we’re passionate about…’). Here’s Nigella Lawson talking about figs: ‘[They’re] beautiful but not in an art-directed way: the purple-blue fruits are cut to reveal the gaping red within, so that they sit in their bowl like plump little open-mouthed birds.’